Past Life and Near-Death Experiences

Here are a few articles and blog posts I have unearthed recently explaining and/or debunking these phenomena. I would be interested to learn anything more. The problems as I see it for a supernatural explanation are:

  1. The absence of a known mechanism, especially for re-incarnation as the cause of past life regressions.
  2. Re-incarnation is a very complicated explanation in the absence of a genetic solution.
  3. No physicist to my knowledge has supported quantum theory as a possible explanation.
  4. Tucker, in particular, seems to have leapt from describing a phenomenon to identifying a cause without any intervening process. His predecessor in the field, Stevenson, carefully avoided drawing any such conclusion.
  5. There has been no replication of Tucker’s experiments by other scientists and, therefore, his findings have not been replicated, which is a key aspect of the scientific process.
  6. Near-death experience seems to be governed by one’s culture and religion; in other words Christians often see Jesus whereas Muslims see the prophet Mohammed.

Anyway, see what you think.

Past Life Regression – James P. Cole

Over the weekend I spoke to someone that firmly believed in past life regression, being a topic I was unfamiliar with(except in passing) I decided to do some research into the subject.  There is certainly a wealth of information online about the topic.  The theory basically states that under hypnosis people can access memories of past lives.  There seems to be some clinical evidence that some people under hypnosis do say things that could be interpreted as memories of past lives.  Although in all fairness the data collected isn’t exactly definitive or often particularly credible.  I won’t go into credibility and merits of the particular studies here as they have already been discussed ad nauseum online, suffice to say there is certainly no general consensus on the credibility of any of the studies conducted from both sides of the issue.  Despite the arguments about the credibility of many of the key studies in the area there does seem to be a large amount of anecdotal evidence.

While anecdotal evidence is hardly something to rely on being an open minded guy I decided to do some research into the matter.  Nearly all of the articles I read about past life regression seemed to be written by proponents of reincarnation.  It appeared to me there is a lot of jumping to conclusions and a whole bunch of people trying to use past life regression as evidence for reincarnation.  But as is often the case with these things the people espousing these views have very little hard evidence to link the two theories let alone a testable hypothesis as to how the phenomenon could actually work.

I could find nothing in the way of a solid testable hypothesis as to how these memories are stored and transmitted from person to person and just a lot of wild conjecture.  So for those of you out there trying to link reincarnation and past life regression consider the following:

There has been some clinical data collected showing that under hypnosis people can say things that could be interpreted as memories of past lives.  That is all the definitive information on the matter at this time.

Many people seem to have prematurely concluded that past life regression must be the result of reincarnation.  Reincarnation however is an untested and unproven theory, equally I could say that an invisible unicorn sneaks into your room at night and implants memories of past lives into your brain.  Both these theories would explain past life regression or conversely past life regression could be used as evidence to attempt to validate either of these theories.  Given that there is the same amount of empirical evidence to support the theory of reincarnation and also the theory of unicorn transmitted memories then I have to conclude that they are both equally probable.  No article I could find could offer a decent explanation of how clinical observations past life regression and reincarnation were linked other than nebulous explanations of the “soul” or “some energy” again both theories with no physical evidence.

Seeing as the theory of the “soul” and reincarnation are both unverified theories(with no hard evidence to support them) they should both be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism.  While I found many people attempting to use past life regression as evidence of reincarnation or the “soul” I didn’t find anyone trying to properly explain how these things could work or answer any of the obvious questions that arise from such explanations like:

What is the mechanism by which these memories are stored and passed from person to person?

What form does the “soul” take?

Given that the “soul” can influence our behaviour then it must in some way be interacting with normal matter so how is this interaction taking place?

Given that the “soul” must be interacting with the normal matter in some way it should therefore be possible to design an experiment to measure this interaction and collect hard data on the theory.  So why don’t the proponents of these theories come up with a decent hypothesis and design an experiment to test it?

Surely if you firmly believed in something so seemingly unlikely as reincarnation or the “soul” these would be the first questions you would ask and then try to find answers to these questions, if for no other reason than to have the peace of mind of some credible basis for your beliefs.  If in fact observed instances of past life regression are actually what is being claimed then the phenomenon should be studied and understood.  I read several articles claiming that maybe it is “just beyond logic and science” which shows a particular brand of ignorance that treats science as a static thing, assuming if it can’t provide a definitive answer today it never will in the future.  In the past many things were “beyond logic and science” which can now be accurately explained so it seems wilfully ignorant(and quite frankly lazy) to assume that something not currently understood can never be studied and explained.  If proponents of theories like the “soul” or reincarnation want to be taken seriously then this sort of wilful ignorance will always keep them on the fringes of intellectual credibility.  To be taken seriously proof needs to be provided and to just say “it is real but can never be understood so I can never investigate or provide proof” doesn’t exactly inspire credibility or give anyone any reason to subscribe to your theory over any other and is certainly not going to win over the people sitting on the fence.

Before I hear the cries of “Well you can’t disprove the theory of the soul or reincarnation” I will say this:  The onus of proof is on the person making the claim.  It is not my responsibility or the responsibility of scientific researchers to disprove every theory that anyone comes up with, it is the responsibility of the person making such extraordinary claims to provide evidence to back up their theory.  In addition to this I could not find a testable hypothesis as to how the “soul” or reincarnation could work so even if I did have the resources or inclination to test its veracity there is nothing for me to test.

Anyway this is a big topic(I could write many more pages on this) and I have digressed quite a bit but seeing as nearly everything I read on the topic seemed to be desperately grasping at straws to try and link the “soul” and reincarnation to past life regression I felt that I need to at least cover the topics.

In my initial thoughts on a mechanism for how memories could be transmitted across lives genetic memory seemed like the most obvious answer.  Genetic memory is the idea that some behaviours and instincts can be transferred genetically, there are many examples of this such as nest building in birds.  To be honest it seemed like a pretty unlikely answer(for many reasons I won’t go into here) but it was the only explanation that immediately sprung to mind.  I figured that if some epigenetic factor could somehow encode memories into a person’s genes they could be transferred to their offspring and therefore across lives.  After some research I discounted this idea as many people report remembering dying in past lives and so there is no way this information could have been passed to their offspring, also you would only be able to access memories of people related to you.  It would be fairly easy to design an experiment to verify or disprove the theory using identical twins separated at birth(to try and account environmental factors) who should theoretically share identical past life memories.  I could not find anything about anyone actually doing such an experiment.  So while genetic memory is in well documented in nature it can’t explain past life regression adequately.

So what are the other explanations for past life regression?  There are a few, none of which have been conclusively proven.  One is that it’s just made up, people have dreams that feel very real, I could dream  I was a Roman soldier or a scullery maid in the past but I would not see that as evidence that I actually was.  So it is clearly possible for the brain to create very realistic feeling scenarios that are not based on fact so this could just be what is happening to these patients under hypnosis.

Another is that the hypnotist asks very leading questions while the patient is in a hypnotised state to try and lead them towards saying things that could be interpreted as talking about actual past lives.

But as I said there is no conclusive evidence for any of theories put forward(including reincarnation and the “soul”).  So the short answer is no one has a proven explanation for the clinical observations(although to be honest I am even a little suspicious of the clinical evidence).

“Ha Ha, I got you, science doesn’t know everything!” I hear the new age anti-intellectuals cry.  Well no one claimed it did.  Equally new age hippy “spiritualism” doesn’t explain everything either.  I find people who fervently espouse unverified “spiritual” explanations to as yet unresolved questions  a strange bunch, they seem to view science as a static thing(much like their own beliefs) and tend to think if science doesn’t explain something today then it never will and has somehow failed and it must be some mystical supernatural force that science can’t define.  This is such a bizarre and short sighted conclusion to jump to and shows such a massive lack of curiosity, understanding and knowledge of history that I find it difficult to fathom.  Less than 80 years ago we didn’t know the mechanism for how hereditary traits are passed from parents to their offspring and I’m sure there were many people saying “see, science can’t explain it therefore it must be the work of [insert crazy theory here]”.  But with more research better experiments and brilliant minds we slowly but inevitably peel back the layers and discover the underlying principles of the world around us.

To think that scientific discovery has gone as far as it ever will or can, and will never explain certain things that many around us point to as evidence of the supernatural, will inevitably, like many before you,  leave you looking the fool.  So for those of you who jump upon unexplained(and often unverified)clinical or experimental data to try and shore up your outlandish, unproven and untested theories I say this: fervent belief in something without evidence poisons the mind, society and advancement of the human condition and will ultimately leave you open to justifiable ridicule.

So until someone can come up with a verified and tested explanation of the observed clinical data I can’t make a call either way as to whether clinical observations described as past life regression are in fact memories of past lives.  But if I was a betting man my guess would be that whatever the answer it lies within the boundaries of physics, neuroscience and physiology.



Jim B. Tucker – critique

While Ian Stevenson focused on cases in Asia, Tucker has studied American children.[21]
Tucker reports that in about 70% of the cases of children claiming to remember past lives the deceased died from an unnatural cause, suggesting that traumatic death may be linked to the hypothesized survival of personality.

Unnatural death doesn’t necessarily mean traumatic, and my question is, are the supposed causes of death reported by the children themselves, or do they identify the person who is then investigated as to causes of death? The only thing you could conclude from such comparisons is an apparent correlation between children claiming to be the reincarnations of the deceased and the accuracy with which they could describe such events, which doesn’t really imply anything beyond the immediate relationship, so this is a rather meaningless statistic.

He further indicates that the time between death and apparent re-birth is, on average, 16 months, and that unusual birthmarks might match fatal wounds suffered by the deceased.[22]

On average the time is 16 months, well this doesn’t say much, out of ten people its possible that the times varied wildly with outliers and it could average out to 16 months; what are the standard deviations of the distribution, this is more of an indicator of spread and therefore how meaningful the statistics are. Unusual birthmarks MIGHT match fatal wounds, and they might not as well… no report here as to what percentage of birthmarks matched wounds, and that would only be percentage of people WITH birthmarks, which is probably not very high. Even if birthmarks match fatal wounds, so what, it is purely coincidental until you can identify some kind of mechanism which might somehow transmit these wounds to the body of the child. Completely meaningless statement here.

Tucker has developed the Strength Of Case Scale (SOCS), which evaluates what Tucker sees as four aspects of potential cases of reincarnation;[23][24] “(1) whether it involves birthmarks/defects that correspond to the supposed previous life; (2) the strength of the statements about the previous life; (3) the relevant behaviours as they relate to the previous life; and (4) an evaluation of the possibility of a connection between the child reporting a previous life and the supposed previous life”.[25]

(1) We’ve already said why this is rather meaningless; (2) This doesn’t really mean anything, a child can do some research about the deceased, most likely they read about it in the paper or something. And how do you rate the strength of their statements? No mention of this here, I would personally clarify this to be “knowledge of private information that only the deceased would know; (3) Relevant behaviours, so similarities between the deceased and the child? This would be coincidental also. Why is there no mention of personality tests being conducted, surely this would be a good way to correlate the two people if it is supposedly personality which is being passed on; (4) A connection, well we all share many connections with each other, similar interests, habits, etc… this means nothing.

All in all, there doesn’t seem to be much here to support any kind of assertion of reincarnation. The SOCS is meaningless and measures nothing but coincidences. I see no reason to take this seriously until the researcher himself takes it seriously enough to conduct a credible study.

From: Dimebag

Here’s the thing… that children do apparently report memories that the adults around them interpret as “past lives” is a real phenomenon. It’s conceivably worth investigating. You’ll almost certainly learn nothing about “past lives” and a lot about the way adults interpret and manipulate children, but an objective investigation isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

What’s out of the realm of possibility is Tucker’s version of “quantum consciousness”, which is such flagrant stupidity that he should not only have his grant revoked, but his PhD, his driver’s license, and his frequent shopper’s card at the Kroger.

OK, I shouldn’t go that far. This is science “journalism”, and it’s entirely possible that it’s the fault of the article writer that makes him sound like a lunatic. Speculating that there’s some kind of quantum woo-woo in the unsolved problem of consciousness isn’t completely idiotic, though it clearly screams “wishful thinking”. It does feel as if there ought to be some kind of “quantum license” you should be forced to get before an academic is allowed to use the word in a sentence. And it’s not administered in the psychology department.

So, just to review the bidding: it’s only kind of a waste of time and money for this guy to run down claims of reincarnation-implying statements by children. At least, as long as he is considering alternative hypotheses like “manipulation” and “confirmation bias”, which Occam’s Razor considers vastly more likely than whatever quantum hoojiggy he’s got in mind.

The question asks for “flaws” but without a description of the methodology, I can’t say one way or the other. The fact that the article doesn’t have such a description is a strong indicator that the “science journalist” is incompetent, but hey, we already knew that. That may or may not indicate more incompetence in the vicinity, but it’ll be hard to tell. Should he try to publish his results, we’ll find out then. I doubt it will be pretty.

From: Joshua Engel


Near Death Experience explained – Scientific American (synopsis, with permission). Charles Q. Choi.

Near-death experiences are often thought of as mystical phenomena, but research is now revealing scientific explanations for virtually all of their common features. The details of what happens in near-death experiences are now known widely—a sense of being dead, a feeling that one’s “soul” has left the body, a voyage toward a bright light, and a departure to another reality where love and bliss are all-encompassing.

Approximately 3 percent of the U.S. population says they have had a near-death experience, according to a Gallup poll. Near-death experiences are reported across cultures, with written records of them dating back to ancient Greece. Not all of these experiences actually coincide with brushes with death—one study of 58 patients who recounted near-death experiences found 30 were not actually in danger of dying, although most of them thought they were.


A variety of explanations might also account for reports by those dying of meeting the deceased. Parkinson’s disease patients, for example, have reported visions of ghosts, even monsters. The explanation? Parkinson’s involves abnormal functioning of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can evoke hallucinations. And when it comes to the common experience of reliving moments from one’s life, one culprit might be the locus coeruleus, a midbrain region that releases noradrenaline, a stress hormone one would expect to be released in high levels during trauma. The locus coeruleus is highly connected with brain regions that mediate emotion and memory, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus.

One of the most famous aspects of near-death hallucinations is moving through a tunnel toward a bright light. Although the specific causes of this part of near-death experiences remain unclear, tunnel vision can occur when blood and oxygen flow is depleted to the eye, as can happen with the extreme fear and oxygen loss that are both common to dying.

Altogether, scientific evidence suggests that all features of the near-death experience have some basis in normal brain function gone awry. Moreover, the very knowledge of the lore regarding near-death episodes might play a crucial role in experiencing them—a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such findings “provide scientific evidence for something that has always been in the realm of paranormality,” Mobbs says. “I personally believe that understanding the process of dying can help us come to terms with this inevitable part of life.”



What is the nature and extent of the stigma associated with problem drug users?

Written by: Timokleia Panagopoulou.

The nature and extent of stigma is associated with problem drug users and that creates implications for policy and practice.  More specifically, stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2013). Stigma for problem drug users has been created because people believe stereotypes such as drug users  are ‘junkies’, burglars inferiors (Lloyd, 2010) and burdens (Singleton,2011; UK Drug Policy Commission [UKDPC], 2010). As a result people don’t want to live next door to a drug user and many of them are opposed to a relationship with a drug dependent. All these beliefs create discrimination for that group of people, as they may be isolated from social events as well as from all of society and as a result their drug use may have increased (Buchanan & Young, 2000).

The nature and extent of stigma on problem drug users

The stigma facing problem drug users is multi-levelled, as it has a lot of consequences. The three most serious are the personal problems they face, as well as mental and psychical problems. Also, their families face stigma.  Health professionals, as well as the media, are responsible for introducing negative stereotypes.  Finally, the whole society is responsible for the current state of stigma in society.

User’s problems

Drug users often report social exclusion from other members of society.  They accept that other people stigmatise them, and they henceforth don’t react to people in a manner typical of the rest of society.  Non-drug users view users as a lower social class of society and more than 50% in Scotland believe that they are a burden on society (Singleton, 2011).  Sometimes they feel that other people are talking about them negatively when they are not present.  It seems that they are unable to create true friendships and relationships with others for a long period because of the isolation created by stigma (Buchanan & Young, 2000). As a result of all these stereotypes, discrimination is increased and (Young, Stuber, Ahern & Galea, 2005) drug user’s self-esteem is substantially decreased (Simmonds & Coomber, 2009).

Mental and physical problems

Because of stigma, problem-drug users not only face rejection, but they also anticipate others’ rejection of them.  The result of this is chronic stress. A research, which took place in three New York city neighbourhoods between 2000 and 2001, shows that drug users are more stressed at work or at home than non-drug users, on account of such stigma (Young, Stuber, Ahern & Galea, 2005). Sometimes, this chronic stress effects parts of the brain (Ahern, Stuber & Galea, 2007), which in turn can lead to chronic health problems, in general (Young, Stuber, Ahern & Galea, 2005). This kind of problems drive drug users cannot cope without self-medication and as a result they continue to use drugs.


Family members of problem-drug users, also face stigma in their daily life.  More specifically, stereotypes and people’s reactions stigmatise also them. 29% of people in Scotland believe that heroin users suffer family difficulties (Corrigan, Miller & Watson, 2006). Family members feel shame for drug use and because of that they avoid personal relationships with people who know about the family member’s drug dependence because they believe that people will judge them in a negative way (Singleton, 2011). The consequence of that is, to remain isolated and not make new relationships.

Health Professionals

Some of health professionals also have stigmatized reactions to drug users. More specifically, the attitudes of some doctors, nurses are negative, and these individuals accept that their behaviour toward them is different than that to their other patients (Lloyd, 2010). Research from the U.S.A. points primary-care doctors and physicians, who work at hospitals viewing problem-drug users in a negative light (Lloyd, 2013). It seems that, they agree with the stereotype that problem-drug users have a poor social prognosis. Social services refer to them as junkies (Simmonds & Coomber, 2009).  These negative attitudes have an impact on treatment, as those with such attitudes are inappropriate for helping a drug user to gain the goal of recovery.


Media has a real power to create imagery that can have widespread influence. Sometimes it is pivotal in the stigmatisation of problem-drug users. However, they do not report the full extent of the issues facing problem-drug users as they represent criminality as one and the same.  Taylor (2008) suggests that the media turns these individuals into ‘outsiders’ of their society. A lot of people in a given society may not know a drug dependent, personally, but all of them have their own opinion about the dangers of use, as well as the lifestyle of users.  This is the public opinion that the media has created (Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League, 2011. This is happening because people love watching this kind of programmes and as a result media may earn more money.  If someone has been identified as a drug-user, by the media, they then have great difficulty in shedding this label (Count the costs, 2011). Consequently, the level of drug use grows at 70%, because of the stigma created by media (Lloyd, 2010).


The majority of people believe that drug addicts are dangerous and unable to be reasoned with (Lloyd, 2010). In general, when people speak of drug users, they describe them as dirty, homeless and jobless. However, this is often an untrue assessment (Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League, 2011). A case of society stigmatising drug users can be seen in pharmacy interactions. Some heroin users pick up their prescribed methadone from their pharmacy, where they cannot avoid the stigmatisation of both staff and other customers (Lloyd, 2010). Drug users face exclusion from the society even when they manage to overcome their addiction (Taylor, 2008). Moreover, drug addiction is one of the most serious causes for social disapproval (Room, 2005). Simmonds and Coomber (2009) support the notion that society stigmatises poor drug users more so than more affluent users. Also, especially in smaller towns, friend groups are often segregated between groups who use and groups who do not, with very little mixing (Simmonds & Coomber, 2009).

Measures to reduce the problem of stigma

Drug users don’t have any support from governments or from whole of society and as a result their treatment blocked as their access is made difficult. In order to reduce the problem of stigmatisation, governments must take measures to ensure the successful reintegration of prior drug-users into society. This will only happen when a better general knowledge of drug use, amongst national populations, reduces national fears (Singleton, 2011).

To conclude, it is true to say that stereotypes, for drug users, create a lot of difficulties in their daily lives, such as psychological problems, chronic stress and isolation for themselves as well as for their families. These stereotypes have been increased because of health professionals, media and society and as a result they implicate policy and practise. More specifically, people face them as criminals and ‘junkies’. Consequently, they suffer from discrimination as often they cannot work and they cannot vote as members of society. Moreover, drug users are responded to differently than other patients within the health care system and some of them are abused. What is more, their families have problems with their accommodation. Finally, some of them who are younger lose their rights to ask for studentships and continue their studies.

The main and the most important consequence of stigma on problem drug users is that the discrimination and the stereotypes which create more drug use.  It is for this reason that health professionals and all members of every society should understand the powerlessness of problem-drug users, and it is thus necessary that these other members assist them in establishing normalcy within their lives (Weil, 2013).


  • Ahern, J., Stuber, J., & Galea, S. (2007). Stigma, discrimination and the health of illicit drug users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 88, 188-196.
  • Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (2011). Why wouldn’t Discriminate against all of them? A Report on Stigma and Discrimination towards the Injecting Drug User Community. Canberra, Australia.
  • Buchanan, J., & Young, L. (2000). The war on drugs- a war on drugs users?. Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 7(4), 409-422.
  • Corrigan, P.W., Miller, F.E., & Watson, A.C. (2006). Blame, shame, and contamination: The impact of mental illness and drug dependence stigma on family members.  Journal of Family Psychology, 20(2), 239-246.
  •  Count the costs, (2011). The War on Drugs: Promoting stigma and discrimination.
  • Lloyd, C. (2010). Sinning and sinned against: the stigmatisation of problem drug users.  Kings Place. London: UK Drug Policy Commission.
  • Oxford Dictionaries, (2013). 
  • Room, R. (2005). Stigma, social inequality and alcohol and drug use. Drug and Alcohol Review,24, 143 -155.
  • Simmonds, L., & Coomber, R. (2009). Injecting drug users: A stigmatised and stigmatising population. International Journal of Drug Policy, 20, 121–130.
  • Singleton, N. (2011). Getting serious about stigma in Scotland: The problem with stigmatising drug users. London: UK Drug Policy Commission.
  • Taylor, S. (2008). Outside the outsiders: Media representations of drug use. Probation Journal 55(4), 369-387.
  • Weil, L. (2013). Drug-related evictions in public housing: congress’ addiction to a quick fix. Yale Law & Policy Review, 9(1), 161-189.
  • Young, M., Stuber, J., Ahern, J., & Galea, S. (2005). Interpersonal discrimination and the health of illicit drug users. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 31, 371–391.

Bishop Berkeley

In Our Time this week (Thursday 20th March) was on the subject of George (Bishop) Berkeley. He was, of course, one of the great British empiricists of the 17th and 18th centuries – Locke and Hume being the other two giants of the era. Berkeley’s big idea was, literally, idealism, that is that the world consists of ideas formed in the mind rather than material objects. Locke felt that these ideas must be based on something rooted in reality but Berkeley’s view that this could not be proven and therefore remained a belief. He sought, through this logic, to prove – what Descartes had failed to do 100 years previously – the existence of God. Idealism far from being a dead end, however, is still very much with us (although God is invoked less than hitherto) and formed a fundamental plank of Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’

Dr Johnson’s famous act of kicking a rock and saying, ‘I refute it thus,’ when Boswell said that it (idealism) was difficult to refute, is not really a refutation. I am with Boswell on this. Everything we experience comes to us through the brain – we cannot stand outside our nature and view the world objectively, so how can we possibly know whether our thoughts and feelings relate to a ‘Real’ world or not?

Berkeley, incidentally, visited the USA and was the inspiration for the naming of Berkeley college, now part of the University of California.

An Alternative View

This is an article I read over the weekend by Amir Taheri, who is described as an author. Middle Eastern politics is not an area of expertise for me but I just thought it interesting to read an alternative view to that put out by the BBC and others.

‘What do you do when you have no policy, but want to appear as if you do? In the case of Barack Obama, the answer is simple: you go around the world making speeches about your “personal journey”.

The latest example came last Thursday, when Mr Obama presented his address to the Muslim world to an invited audience of 2,500 officials at Cairo University. The exercise was a masterpiece of equivocation and naivety. The President said he was seeking “a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world”. This implied that “Muslims around the world” represent a single monolithic bloc – precisely the claim made by people like Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who believe that all Muslims belong to a single community, the “ummah”, set apart from, and in conflict with, the rest of humanity.

Mr Obama ignored the fact that what he calls the “Muslim world” consists of 57 countries with Muslim majorities and a further 60 countries – including America and Europe – where Muslims represent substantial minorities. Trying to press a fifth of humanity into a single “ghetto” based on their religion is an exercise worthy of ideologues, not the leader of a major democracy.

Mr Obama’s mea culpa extended beyond the short span of US history. He appropriated the guilt for ancient wars between Islam and Christendom, Western colonialism and America’s support for despotic regimes during the Cold War. Then came the flattering narrative about Islam’s place in history: ignoring the role of Greece, China, India and pre-Islamic Persia, he credited Islam with having invented modern medicine, algebra, navigation and even the use of pens and printing. Believing that flattery will get you anywhere, he put the number of Muslim Americans at seven million, when the total is not even half that number, promoting Islam to America’s largest religion after Christianity.

The President promised to help change the US tax system to allow Muslims to pay zakat, the sharia tax, and threatened to prosecute those who do not allow Muslim women to cover their hair, despite the fact that this “hijab” is a political prop invented by radicals in the 1970s. As if he did not have enough on his plate, Mr Obama insisted that fighting “negative stereotypes of Islam” was “one of my duties as President of the United States”. However, there was no threat to prosecute those who force the hijab on Muslim women through intimidation, blackmail and physical violence, nor any mention of the abominable treatment of Muslim women, including such horrors as “honour-killing”. The best he could do was this platitude: “Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons.”

Having abandoned President Bush’s support for democratic movements in the Middle East, Mr Obama said: “No system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by another.” He made no mention of the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Muslim countries, and offered no support to those fighting for gender equality, independent trade unions and ethnic and religious minorities.

Buried within the text, possibly in the hope that few would notice, was an effective acceptance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions: “No single nation should pick and choose which nations should hold nuclear weapons.” Mr Obama did warn that an Iranian bomb could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. However, the Cairo speech did not include the threat of action against the Islamic Republic – not even sanctions. The message was clear: the US was distancing itself from the resolutions passed against Iran by the UN Security Council.

As if all that weren’t enough, Mr Obama dropped words such as “terror” and “terrorism” from his vocabulary. The killers of September 11 were “violent extremists”, not “Islamist terrorists”. In this respect, he is more politically correct than the Saudis and Egyptians, who have no qualms about describing those who kill in the name of Islam as terrorists.

Mr Obama may not know it, but his “Muslim world” is experiencing a civil war of ideas, in which movements for freedom and human rights are fighting despotic, fanatical and terrorist groups that use Islam as a fascist ideology. The President refused to acknowledge the existence of the two camps, let alone take sides. It was not surprising that the Muslim Brotherhood lauds him for “acknowledging the justice of our case” – nor that his speech was boycotted by the Egyptian democratic movement “Kifayah!” (“Enough!”), which said it could not endorse “a policy of support for despots in the name of fostering stability”.

In other words, the President may find that by trying to turn everyone into a friend, he has merely added to his list of enemies.’

Review of The Wire

The Wire is about life in Baltimore. In particular it is about the issue of drugs in Baltimore and how that trade affects different aspects of the city’s life – law and order, social and economic, education, politics and journalism.

I bought a dvd of Season One of The Wire on the strength of a review in The Guardian in 2007. It claimed that The Wire was the best thing on television in the last twenty years.  Is it? Yes – because apart from anything else this allows The World At War, Fawlty Towers and, most importantly, The Phil Silvers Show their rightful place in the TV Pantheon.

What about The Sopranos? First allow me to explain why The Sopranos is not quite as good as The Wire. The Sopranos is great television, moving, funny, shocking but rarely meaningful. It’s derivative which is not necessarily a bad thing but it depends on a comprehension of references to The Godfather.The way in whichTony Soprano the vicious crime boss is sometimes depicted as Homer Simpson is, however, a touch of genius. But there’s no moment when you say to yourself, ‘That’s just like my life!’ Now I’m not ‘police’ and despite the fact I taught in an urban comprehensive in South London does not really make my life like Prez’s school in season four – but the way in which public service jobs have been reduced to target setting so that the targets are ends in themselves speaks to a very wide audience. All of the characters have their good and bad points there’s moral ambiguity all around which makes everything seem more realistic. Towards the end of Season Three where a prominent public servant is spotted in a gay bar his hypocrisy and duplicity is not dwelt upon and preached about it’s just noted – all of this resonates with our everyday experience of people. As has been pointed out already by somebody else The Wire is like a novel -you cannot skip chapters – it demands effort but rewards the viewer not just with TV entertainment but the the same reward that great literature brings. The characters are so strong and the acting is simply phenomenal – especially that of the school children.
What about The Shield? Well it too is great television brilliantly acted and superbly written – it too creates all sorts of moral dilemmas that test our consciences but for me it does not transcend the genre of a cop programme – and it is very much from a police perspective – which is fine in itself but it lacks the depth of The Wire. The viewer is given less perspective of the LA politician and little insight into gang members despite it being about much of the same subject matter. Consider what the viewer has learnt about Baltimore drug dealing or teaching or municipal politics with what we learn from The Shield.

I have never felt so evangelical about anything as I do about The Wire. I have recommended it various members of my family and numerous friends and without exception they have either enjoyed it as much as I did or pretended that they did so extremely convincingly. The five seasons are available for purchase or rent from Amazon or can be watched online.

Our Second Lunch

This was a very enjoyable occasion – it was just as good as last year’s with added youth and celebrity (provided by Finn and Ariane). Many thanks to all those who made the effort – I really am looking forward to the next one – I’d like to think that feeling is shared. I hope that everyone (especially those who had travelled far) managed to get back without too much fuss. Please feel free to make suggestions about the timing and location of our next meeting. I’ll add the photos as soon as I find my lead for the camera!

Dennett on free will – a summary of ‘Elbow Room’

Dennett approaches the subject from a deterministic stance, and his thesis is to convince the reader that determinism provides ‘The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having’, (which is the book’s subtitle). In fact, he attempts to convince us that under determinism one can have an almost perfect simulation of absolute free will, and to demonstrate that the last step between that simulation and the absolute thing is, in fact, meaningless. He has little time for absolutist philosophers or philosophies.

His is a purely materialistic determinism. He dismisses dualism in one phrase, as ‘a desperate vision which richly deserves its current disfavour’. He makes no mention at all of non-dualistic idealism in the Eastern tradition, that of spirit subtending matter. I rather feel his thoughts on that would scorch the paper. However he quotes lengthily Paul Jennings’ ‘Resistentialism’ in a footnote, and charmingly refers to Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’, so he must be a Good Thing.

He is something of a compatibilist, with the limitation that the free will he proposes as compatible with determinism is not absolute.

In style he likens his approach to that of the sculptor he once thought to be : circling his material, chipping here and there, roughing out the overall shape from all sides, rather than going in a straight line from A to B. This can make him a bit repetitive, and a second reading is sometimes necessary to see where he was going in any particular passage. For Dennett the role of philosophy is to enlarge our vision of the possible, and to break bad habits of thought. A last general comment : throughout this book Dennett dances round the question of what determinism means in a world having quantum indeterminacy, without realy facing it, IMO. He does however, make use of the concept of determined chaotic pseudo-randomness to get him out of tight determined corners once or twice. ‘With one bound, Dan was free !’.

He starts with an entertaining section on all the bugbears and bogeymen that have been created by philosophical thought experiments or metaphors, all intending to illustrate our plight in having the illusion of free will if the world is deterministic ‘and so we don’t in fact have any free will at all’, but by their construction and orientation all tending to frighten us into wanting absolute free will or nothing. These include such terrors as :

  • The Invisible Jailor (the illusion of free will, when in fact we don’t have any, likened to being in a prison which prevents our freedom, only we can’t see the bars. Shudder and beat your heads against the wall)
  • The Nefarious Neurosurgeon (we think we have free will, but imagine an entity which seizes control of your physical, and perhaps mental, activities without you knowing it, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.. Wouldn’t that be awful ?)
  • The Cosmic Child whose Toy We Are (if we don’t have free will we’re the playthings of the Universe. How diminished and undignified, how cruel a fate would that be..)
  • ‘Sphexishness’ : Sphex ichneumoneus is a wasp which seems to behave very intelligently in some respects, until you alter its surroundings, when all its thoughtfulness is shown up as mere non-adapting mechanical behaviour. How would we feel if at some superior level it were as laughably evident that all our efforts are mere automatisms ?
  • The Dread Secret : OK, so we don’t have free will. Wouldn’t it be terrible if people found out ? Moral responsibility goes down the drain and life reverts to being Hobbesian, nasty, British, and short. (PS, the typo is dredged up from my memory of a perhaps apocryphal journalistic howler).

All these bugbears are highly emotional, and a constant concern of the book is to dedramatise.

The real question for Dennett is :

Free will is usually defined in terms of ‘might have done otherwise’. Why should anyone care about the ‘might have’ ?

His next section looks at reason and meaning.

In the beginning, there were only ’causes’. The first ‘reasons’ were created with the first self replicationg proto-organisms, which came to respond to stimuli to preserve their entropy-decreasing replicative behaviour. These were genetically controlled reasons. Now read on.

Reason, it is said, is not a physical property of the world. Therefore a rational will must be exempt from physical causality (the major currents of thinking on free will suppose it to be rational). A decision moved by reason cannot be a decision moved by causes.

A related argument concerns meaning. Meaning is not a physical property of the world. Therefore a physical mind can only be a syntactic engine (concerned with the structure of information) and not a semantic engine (concerned with meaning).

Dennett proposes to bridge the gap between the syntactic engine and the semantic engine by introducing the first of his proposed ‘very good approximations’ The brain only approximates the behaviour of a semantic engine, in fact, we are super-sphexish. He then proceeds to soften the blow and sugar the pill. Most of the descriptions of our state under determinism suffer from drastic oversimplification. They ignore our sophisticated sensory array and our ability to notice things. This is what distinguishes our ’caused’ behaviour from the simpler kind. Having a ‘reason’ presented to your understanding is, however, no different in kind from any other cause, just different in level.

He gives a lengthy review of his ideas on consciousness, including a convincing ‘just so story’ of how consciousness can arise deterministically. For him consciousness is ‘at the reachable top of the pyramid of natural, physical, processes’. No ‘Chalmers Hard Problem’ for Dennett.

He subscribes to a form of Hobbes ‘social contract’ theory of morality.

Finally, self-reflective consciousness plus a Hobbesian, deterministic morality permit the acquiring of non-genetically determined reasons (including e.g. altruism, or the desire to do something crazy just because you can, or any other test case you can come up with to demonstrate your absolute existential freedom).

His third section is on control and self-control. If we don’t have free will, we’re not in control. We’re not free agents or unmoved movers. That could mean (shock horror) that we are, in fact controlled (he notes the semantic slide from ‘determined’ to ‘controlled’).

He discusses different types of control, from the rigid control of a thermostat over a heater, through the limited autonomy of a robot space probe, where the external controlling agent just sets the overall goals and parameters, but is precluded by communication lags from having total hands-on control, to the example of the pilot of an airplane and the control he exercises. The pilot is warned of a thunderstorm ahead. He decides to change course to avoid it. Why ? Because in doing so he recognises the limitations of those aspects of the plane’s behaviour he actually can control, and the limitations of his skill to control them. The two elements, forewarning of a random event coming up, and self-knowledge, combine to lead him to conclude that to maintain his margin for manouevre, his ‘elbow room’, he’d do better to steer round. None of that is incompatible with the behaviour of a multi-level , self reflecting, deliberation engine. And who could ask for more ? As for the emotional content, the pilot’s emotions at hearing of the storm are a real and important part of the causal chain.

Dennett also rather cheekily reviews the gradation between (a) brute force control of one’s actions by an external agent, through (b) influence by sweet reason causing a change in one’s actions, to (c) influence by pure provision of correct forecasting data affecting one’s actions. Hey, it’s all an external agent modifying one’s behaviour.

He concludes that under determinism we are not controlled by the past, as there is no feedback loop to the past reporting on our behaviour. Determination is not control.

My first reaction was indignation : this is just sleight of hand, begging the question of in what way is it better to be determined than to be controlled ? However, more thought failed to come up with an answer to the question : who could ask for more ?

Dennett’s fourth section is on the Self, and its relationship to moral responsibility. For me the latter element, on moral responsibility, is the least convincing part of the book..

First he notes the extreme position that the self is absolute agent, and unmoved mover. Its actions are not caused by anything external. He counters with the suggestion that this is an illusion, caused by :

  • the amplifying effect of minute neural triggers causing massive action effects
  • the inscrutability of neural causal paths
  • preoccupations with responsibility, moral, artistic, and intellectual.

He casts doubt on the reality of willed choice, citing the difficulty of pinning down the ‘moment of decision’ by introspection, and instances when we will one thing and do another.

Dennett notes that the self develops, it is not inborn. It develops through social interactions, from genetic dispositions. There is no ‘tabula rasa’, which for us is obvious, but which for the absolutist philosophers was unthinkable. The absolutist position is roughly « unless one is absolutely responsible for oneself, one is not responsible at all ». On the other extreme, hard determinists negate responsibility.

Dennett claims a middle ground. He claims a responsible self can develop for the individual, deterministically, from non-responsible beginnings « like mammals can evolve from non-mammals ». He notes that it is silly to claim that one is not responsible for something unless one is completely responsible for it, as no-one is ever completely responsible for anything.

Reverting to self-creation, he believes it to be largely heuristic. The essence of heuristic processing is to involve ‘leaps in the dark’, and arbitrary cut-off of deliberation, in situations where rational processing of all the data would be impractical. Such an approach is required for a sophisticated self-controlling agent faced with meta-level questions to which there are no obvious answers. Heuristic processing is time efficient but imperfect.

The shortcuts our minds take to arrive at solutions faced with time pressure will be a central theme for the rest of the book.

Finally, the complex and multi-layered process by which we arrive at self-formation, while being caused and determined, is just an awful lot grander than your simple formation process, such as crystal formation. Isn’t it ?

Dennett here goes through a lengthy, and IMO odd and flawed, development on the concept of luck as it relates to moral responsibility. He points out the difference between the concept of luck as in : I just flipped a coin 30 times and it came down heads all 30 (luck-a), and as in : I’m lucky to be here typing on this computer, ‘cos it means that none of my forebears died before the relevant reproductive act, and the transmitted intelligence level cumulated in my ability to handle Windows XP(tm) (luck-b). Coin tosses don’t have a memory, genes do. He refers to the argument that it’s ‘just luck’ if Yer Honour the Judge had the predispositions to be on one side of the bench and Crestfallen Criminal had the predisposition to be on the other side, which, if it were true, would be an argument against moral responsibility. Having very succinctly outlined it, he doesn’t refute it, deferring that to later chapters, just calling it ‘a petulant little argument’. He continues by claiming that we are all genetically endowed with such a high skill level in the cognitive areas enabling the deliberative processes relating to moral responsibility, compared to say a cat, that we all reach the same plateau of awareness of moral responsibility sooner or later. (purely false, IMO, and the only reference he quotes is another philosopher, not an evolutionary or genetic psychologist). Finally he concludes that the ‘just luck’ evens out, so we’re left with skill, and so we can be held responsible for our acts, citing the example of the NBA player who is held responsible for missing an easy shot, whereas for an amateur we’d have said that make it or miss it, it was just luck. My reaction : having created the distinction between luck-a and luck-b (my terms), he’s then completely failed to use them consistently, and in fact our ‘moral responsibility’ depends on luck-b, which only evens out after we’re all dead. Case for moral responsibility under determinism not proven, m’lud.

Chapter 5 is on action under the idea of freedom, and the idea of ‘opportunity’.

Dennett makes what for him is a vital distinction between determinism and fatalism. Fatalism supposes you go through foreseeably predetermined hoops. Determinism, given the chaotic pseudo-randomness around us, gives us hoops that are not foreseeable. See bottom of the discussion of Chap.5 for an example. Dennett has a beautiful phrase for the believer in absolute free will, speaking of ‘the now, zipping up the spreading future into the thin line of the past’. Well, no, he says. From the god’s eye view, the timeline is singular. The singular timeline the hypothetical god would see is exactly that which we determine by our actions in the present. There is no ‘meta-time’ (my words) in which to say with Freddie Mercury ‘it’s all (already) decided for us’.

Coming back to the comparison between a conscious human being and a designed deliberation engine, he points out that the deliberation engine would have some pseudo-random process for cutting short to deliberation, to be able to act in useful time. In starting its deliberations, it would have whole classes of possible outcomes not foreseeable to it. This is what gives us the illusion that things are ‘up to us’.

He notes, however, that as self reflecting deliberators, we can perceive our heuristics, and if required modify the cut off points, giving another dimension to the illusion.

He considers : Is it rational to maintain the illusion that the future contains real ‘opportunities’ ? It depends what you mean by opportunity.

Here Dennett goes off into the continuation of his unsatisfactory development on chance, introducing the notions of real randomness (quantum indeterminacy) and determined pseudo-randomness (chaotic processes) as determinants of the outcome of a heuristic process. Does the one mean it ‘had a chance’ and the other, being deterministic, mean it never did ? He posits that ‘opportunity’ under determinism is comparable to a lottery, for which the winning stub had been drawn and kept in a sealed envelope before the tickets were sold, which most people think is just fine. He seems to slide from the idea that it is determined that someone will win such a lottery, to the idea that it is determined that a particular individual will win it. Then, Dennett indulges in some heavy moralising about the socio-political necessity for believing in opportunity, and the importance of keeping one’s options open. Great language for talking to one’s teenage children, but moralising is something of an admission of defeat for a philosopher.

Finally, he tackles ‘avoidance’, as the opposite of ‘opportunity’, noting that in the god’s eye view nothing is avoidable. The ideas of ‘making a difference’, or ‘changing the course of history’ are illusions coming from false expectations. He uses the question ‘Why do you put a lock on your door, if whether or not someone will break in is already determined ?’ as an illustration of the absurdity of using fatalistic arguments instead of deterministic ones. ‘Unavoidable’, or ‘inevitable’, correctly understood, mean ‘outside the influence of our deliberations’.

Chapter 6 finally addresses the central question of ‘could have done otherwise’, or in technical language, the ‘counterfactuals’. Moral responsibility depends on ‘could I have done otherwise ?’, which is also the touchstone of free will.

Dennett distinguishes between ‘could have done otherwise’ in ‘exactly the same circumstances’ and in ‘slightly different circumstances’. He points out that ‘could have done otherwise in exactly the same circumstances’ has no useful meaning : the same set of micro-states, ignoring quantum fluctuations, will always give the same outcome. Including for arbitrary or mad acts. Further, given quantum indeterminacy, ‘exactly the same circumstances’ can never hold, so if moral responsibility rests on our asking could we have done differently, the question is unanswerable, so no-one would be able to determine moral responsibility. Thus, what we mean when we talk about ‘could have done otherwise’ is typically : « if the same general set of circumstances arose in the future, would my experience of the past situation prompt me to behave differently ? »

Finally he discusses the words ‘I can’. He concludes that ‘I can’ refers to the combination of two elements : my general potentials, skills, abilities, and possible states on the one hand, and epistemic possibility (i.e. what is possible as far as I know, given the limits of my knowledge in a chaotic pseudo-random environment) on the other. It does not refer to my hypothetical absolute freedom of action in a particular situation, nor to absolute logical or physical possibility.

Bottom line, the perceived importance of the question ‘Could I have done otherwise ?’ results from mistaking a practical question about my future behaviour for a metaphysical one about my past. The interface with moral responsibility is where you learn from the past to influence your future behaviour or you don’t (can the programming of the deliberation engine be improved or can’t it ?).

Dennett concludes his book by considering why it seems so important for (some of) us to have free will. He centres his thinking around the notion of moral responsibility, and asks, with false naiveté, why on Earth would we want all that responsibility ? He answers that the only useful notion of morality is social usefulness. The complex, sophisticated, multi-layered, reflexive, deliberating engine Mark III that we are takes in as one of its inputs that act (A) will have a probability (P) of consequence (C), and takes its heuristic, sub-optimised decisions appropriately. Acting morally becomes a bet on the consequences, whether they be the satisfaction of love or the expectation of punishment. Finally, to have free will, you must believe in it. The alternative is your (freely chosen) nihilism, apathy, and inaction, always assuming that our genetic makeup would ever let us get that far.

The book is dense, and the above does desperately little justice to it. My hope would be that I’ve made you curious to read Dennett. Despite my disappointment at some aspects of the book, I’m much the richer for having read it. All I have to do now is reconcile the aspects of his thinking which do convince me with the set of beliefs I brought to the party, those of non-dualistic Idealism !